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Volts wagons: Sales on the rise as plug-in cars get better and better

Once deemed the preserve of the green lobby, electric cars are starting to become mainstream as manufacturers conquer range and pricing

Sales of alternatively-fuelled vehicles like electric and plug-in hybrid cars are growing across the UK and Ireland.

They were up, for example, by a quarter in the UK in September compared to the same month a year previously.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders reported a 23% increase in sales of new petrol-electric vehicles across 2018 with 81,156 registered.

Plug-in hybrids - a mix of battery and conventional power - are the most popular of all types of electric cars. Battery-only electric vehicles accounted for 15,474 registrations in the UK in 2018.

So are we reaching a tipping point where alternatively-fuelled cars will really take off?

Yes and no. In the case of hybrid cars, we are closer to any tipping point than with pure all-electric vehicles (often known as EVs).

This is being slowly reflected in sales figures, but will accelerate in the next couple of years as all the main manufacturers are now well down the road of 'decarbonising' their ranges, and the main method to do this is to ditch diesel engines and replace them with much cleaner, and more efficient, petrol plug-in hybrids.

So how different are electric and plug-in hybrids?

The key difference is that electric cars need electricity to go, whilst plug-in hybrids can use both petrol and electricity, although the latter generally will only take the car about 30 or 40 miles before it needs to use fossil fuel.

A pure electric car will have large lithium batteries, generally concealed in the floor running from front to rear. This gives the car a low centre of gravity and helps with cornering.

Examples include the Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe.

The hybrid story is a little more complex. It's important to understand the three different types of hybrid on the market.

Electrically assisted: This is where an electric motor gives a little extra grunt to the engine going uphill or on acceleration. Some are relatively simple, like the Toyota Yaris, but others can be complex. The motor is recharged by the petrol engine.

Plug-in hybrids: These have larger batteries that you charge from the mains, often overnight. There are different versions of plug-in hybrids, for example the Toyota Prius. They also have a petrol engine.

Range extenders: these run mostly on their electric motors, but have a small petrol (or, less often, diesel) engine to come to the rescue when needed. One example is the BMW i3 Range Extender.

Each category has its advantages and disadvantages. But will all you have the knowledge that your car is more efficient, less polluting and hit by lower taxation than traditional cars.

What are the benefits of electric and plug-in hybrid cars?

There are many. Full electric cars produce zero exhaust emissions and no harmful pollutants on the road.

This means air quality is much better - and given than emissions produced by cars are thought to contribute to the early deaths of more than 30,000 people in the UK every year, then it's a public health priority.

New research says even when the manufacturing process is taken into account, electric vehicles produce half the emissions of fossil-fuelled cars. So there is less damage to the planet.

Also of course, electric cars are exempt from certain taxes and levies being introduced in the UK. And most new plug-in hybrids fall below the road-tax band too, so their owners pay less tax.

Electric cars are also great to drive; they are fast, quiet and because they don't have a gearbox, there are no transmission gaps - just a continuous, long power surge. In fact the world's fastest street-legal production cars nowadays have electric engines.

Are electric cars expensive?

No. They are more costly to purchase because a) batteries are expensive and b) they are currently made in smaller numbers so there is much less economy of scale in the manufacturing process.

However, the extra cost is usually offset by tax and fuel savings. If you do a lot of miles a year, pure electric vehicles will not yet be your car of choice, but plug-in electric cars are definitely an option.

There is a £4.5k government grant that was designed to encourage the electrification of motor vehicles - although this is set to be reduced to £3.5k in coming years and will undoubtedly vanish as electric cars become mainstream.

There's increasing evidence that alternatively-fuelled cars are retaining value better than fossil fuel models.

New research from automotive data experts at HPI shows that three petrol hybrid 4x4 vehicles - the Lexus NX, Rav4 and Kia Niro - top the league for industry-leading low levels of depreciation.

The Lexus NX retains 72% of its value from new after three years and 60,000 miles, losing on average £11,611.

The Toyota Rav4 retains 69% of its value and loses an average of £10,341 over three years and 60,000 miles. The Kia Niro retains 67% of its value and loses £8,677 over the same period.

How far will pure-electric cars go?

The days when electric cars only did 70 or so miles are now in the rear view mirror.

This is down to one simple reason - battery technology. So-called 'range anxiety' has been the biggest barrier to the uptake of pure electric cars by many people.

But family EVs are now coming on the market with ranges of up to 279 miles - not quite the 400-500 of many petrol cars, but technical enough to drive from Belfast to Dublin and back on a single charge. And some of the bigger beasts like the Tesla Model S have an official range of up to 393 miles (less in real world usage, of course).

These figures will improve in coming years, and when they do expect EV sales to start to go through the roof - and you'll see rapid charging points appearing at petrol stations, hotels, stores, train stations, and more.

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